Geeta Devi’s neat Hindi signature is written below her photograph – a shy-looking woman with a dupatta covering her head – in an affidavit duly notarised in Haridwar last month. Dehradun district resident Manju smiles out of the photograph on her affidavit, where she states she is just 36 years old.
According to the government of Uttarakhand, both Manju and Geeta Devi are dead. After all, both women are manual scavengers, engaged in an occupation that the state does not believe exists.
“There is no data because we simply deny their existence,” admits Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh. “It is not kosher to admit that we still have manual scavenging in this country.”
The Uttarakhand government stated that both women – and hundreds of other manual scavengers – were dead in its submission to the Supreme Court in response to a 2003 petition filed by the Safai Karamchari Andolan, an organisation working to end the practice whereby lakhs of people dispose of the excreta of their fellow human beings with their own hands, usually carried on their own heads.
Uttarakhand is not alone. Several state governments have told the court that both the census which found 26 lakh manually cleaned latrines in the country, and the SKA which has documented the profiles and photographs of almost 9,000 scavengers are simply wrong.
For example, in the Dehradun district, the local administration has dismissed the claims of every single one of the 244 profiles documented by SKA. “Retired”, “[in] service”, “death”, “not interested in loan [granted by government]” reads page after page in the government’s submission against the names of people whom SKA has painstakingly profiled.
“Census workers…have drawn wrong inference,” says the Madhya Pradesh government’s submission. “The report of the census of India may be based on old data/figures,” says the submission from Bihar. Similar statements were submitted by Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
“This is why we have gathered photographs, addresses, and notarised affidavits,” says SKA national convenor Bezwada Wilson. “But the government refuses to admit to the truth.”
SKA estimates that over three lakh manual scavengers – mostly women – may be cleaning excreta from dry latrines, open drains and railway tracks across the country. But the government has no accurate figures.
The Rural Development Minister Mr. Ramesh expects the ongoing Socio-Economic Caste Census to document and enumerate manual scavengers, and give women like Manju and Geeta Devi a presence in government records.
In the meanwhile, the Rural Development Ministry has promised to bring every manual scavenger identified by SKA into the net of the National Rural Livelihood Mission, giving the highest priority to providing them with alternative livelihoods, training and skill development.